Skip to main content

The Blockbuster Of The Decade: The Dark Knight

There are a lot of windows in the Gotham City of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight . As metaphor, as motif, as symbol, as literal implication. Look how they open up.

Key one-sheets leading up to the movie’s release saw Batman surveying Gotham through one, fist-shattering another, blowing out a whole bunch of them with a flaming Bat-symbol.

The film’s wrong-footing (hang on, it’s broad daylight!) opening shot contains thousands of the glinting things, staring back at you.

“Frankly, there’s a lot of windows up here,” says a cop checking for snipers during Commissioner Loeb’s funeral. Batman crashes through one in Hong Kong and hurls himself out of a two-way to save DA Dawes.

And as The Joker conducts his final atrocity, Commissioner Gordon quizzically comments: “Why’d he choose a spot with such big windows?” All the better to see Gotham with…

The metaphor is clear and eloquent, Christopher Nolan and co-writer/sibling Jonathan framing moral murk with piercing clarity.

No matter how posh your 25th-floor penthouse you’re just thin glass from the street below and all its mayhem. Gotham is a city of glasshouses and danger could come from any window.

And as The Joker’s pawns abseil out from a skyscraper window, camera plunging over the edge, your trembling knees and churning stomach posit a question: when you peer through the window and into a void this deep, does it peer into you?

Yes. It’s pretty heavy for a blockbuster. Yes. It sets a high, high bar.

Next: The IMAX effect [page-break]

If you saw The Dark Knight in Imax, you’ll know how thick with palpable vertiginous terror the opening shot was.

Comparisons with the city-set intros of Hitchcock’s Vertigo or Psycho spring to mind: big titles to evoke, yes, but Knight ’s no lightweight.

Contrast it with Transformers, which arrived on Imax in a clutter of incomprehensible junk, a barrier to participation in the film.

By contrast, as Nolan puts it, his use of Imax created a window that opened Gotham right up: “You can pass through the screen if it has the clarity and depth of Imax photography.”

Next: A new kind of superhero movie [page-break]

If Batman Begins situated one man’s psychodrama against the backdrop of a sickening city, Knight locates his psychodrama within that city, throwing in The Joker to gleefully shatter barriers between Bruce Wayne and all he reviles.

By turn, visuals and subtexts throw that world open to the audience, rendering it relevant through teasing real-world parallels (post-9/11 America, Baghdad, knife crime) and pulling you in through force of style.

Enough windows shatter and trucks roll to decimate action-movie competition too, exploding CGI’s transparent fakery so as to remove yet another barrier between viewer and film.

Add that lot up and you crack the glass between “great superhero movie” and “great movie, full stop”.

This was a blockbuster that came in regulation black alright, kitted out in capes and splattered screen-wide with deep, dark purples.

But clothes don’t make the movie, Nolan instead tailoring his Bat-sequel to the calling of a meticulously constructed crime movie with psychosis and terror coursing through it and an awful gash of flaming tragedy at its heart.

Next: The Michael Mann influence [page-break]

This is operatic storytelling at full tilt, gorging on the cop-criminal complicity underpinning many great crime movies (Michael Mann’s Heat springs to most minds).

Confident enough to trust an audience’s interest in chaps having severe conversations about “revenue streams” and yet wholly, completely and utterly the Batman movie fans craved.

Another Mann movie comes to mind: compare scenes of The Joker tormenting captives on video (“LOOK AT ME!”) to those of Francis Dollarhyde in Manhunter , torturing tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds, as an index of how far the Nolans were prepared to nudge the lunacy.

All it took was one little push closer to the early comics, but the distancing effect of arch asides and in-jokes – this Joker don’t know Jack – was another window the Nolans shattered.

As Bale said: “We’re not looking for actors to be giving a nod and a wink to the audience, showing how much the actor is enjoying portraying this caricature.”

Too often, affective reactions to event movies are short-circuited by self-awareness. Knight delivered characters exactly as you think they should be, but presented them as if for the first time, ground up. Some feat.

Next: Genius Casting [page-break]

Genius casting was a trump card. Let’s not ignore Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman: yes, his voice is funny, but there’s control there, too.

But Heath Ledger’s delivery rules, cunningly cast as a psycho improv artist. No one else would have thought of it but once seen, you knew it was the right choice.

A measure of the gamble’s brilliance? Even Nolan didn’t quite know what Ledger was cooking.

He says: “He’d call me from time to time, just to talk about what he was doing. And frankly, it was pretty hard to relate to on the other end of the phone – when he’d talk about looking at ventriloquist dummies and the way their mouths moved, the way the voice would sound disembodied.”

But Ledger traded Nolan’s faith with one for the ages, a free-jazz nutjob tightly wound but ever-ready to screech off on some fresh, terrible tangent.

The Nolans gave him one hell of a piece to work with. The goth-panto of Tim Burton’s Batman went out the window – Knight is lathered with socio-psychological dynamics.

Next: The characters that make the movie [page-break]

Everybody here has their reasons: that’s the tragedy of the tale.

There’s Harvey Dent, the white knight who believes a city beyond repair can be fixed, performed to suave perfection by Aaron Eckhart, whose nascent dark side recalls his two-faced lead from In The Company Of Men.

There’s Rachel, the DA who believes in Harvey. There’s Gordon, the cop struggling to do good work with a corrupt team.

And there’s Bruce, the playboy vigilante wrestling with Jack Bauer’s conundrum: to fix this world, how low do you need to go?

Come the close, one hero’s a monster, another’s an exile, the girl hasn’t been saved and Gotham’s veneer of civilisation is dented.

Gordon was wrong during The Joker’s final stunt: there aren’t any windows on the half-built site Mr J’s hiding in. The dividing glass ain’t there.

Next: Nolan's Batman 3 [page-break]

This was the Batman our times called for.

But it’s no wonder Nolan hasn’t yet made a commitment to a threequel (at least not publicly), what with the expectations being colossal. Glass ceilings have been shattered and the view is giddy.

Will Nolan plunge back into Gotham? Be the hero we need him to be? No one knows, but put it like this: we think he can take it.

Next: Our top villain choices [page-break]

1 THE MASTER? “The Joker’s just a mad dog,” said Two-Face. “I want whoever let him off the leash.” Is someone lurking in the wings?

2 The Riddler? Death traps and puzzles? Perhaps Nolan could reclaim Jigsaw’s homicidal hoopla from the Saw cycle… adding a little bit of the Zodiac Killer, too.

Or go the full Manhunter route and send Bats to consult The Joker (recast – Daniel Day-Lewis?) in Arkham for clues to catch a riddle-some killer.

Riddler has been an investigator, too, so perhaps the green beanpole could be the secretly sick side of a man hired to help the Batman hunt.

Ditch that Depp rumour, though – dangle for Joseph Gordon-Levitt instead.

3 Black Mask? This time, it’s personal. A rival of Wayne’s from a similar family, Roman Sionis wears a black mask that melts to his face during a nasty accident and fronts a cult of “False Facers”. Two Face meets Scarecrow?

A bit over-familiar but the fit is good, BM being Batman’s warped mirror image. He even kidnaps Lucius Fox at one point – there’s a motive for Bats’ return to Gotham after his enforced exile.

If Day-Lewis doesn’t accept our invite to do The Joker, he’d wear the Mask beautifully… Oh, go on.

4 Hush? A fans’ favourite, Hush/Tommy Elliot has much in common with Black Mask, being a childhood friend of Bruce’s who grew up to resent the Wayne family… for saving his much-hated mother’s life after he tried to kill his parents.

He trains as a surgeon and at one point joins forces with The Riddler, who’s figured out Wayne is Batman – fits like a jigsaw, right? He’s carried out plastic surgery on himself, so perhaps Mickey Rourke would fit here.

5 Harley Quinn? A criminal psychologist who could be employed to study The Joker. The purple man’s wily charisma gets under her skin and she begins to do his dirty work for him, conveying messages to a wacko terrorising Gotham City.

Batman discovers her dirty secrets during a sneaky night-time conflab with The Joker. Because he only comes out at night. Rebecca Hall or Abbie Cornish, please.

6 Catwoman? God knows how she’d fit, or be rescued from that choked-up hairball of a Halle Berry flick, but rumours proliferate.

The casting of Marion Cotillard in Nolan’s Inception has inspired followers to whip up oodles of pervy fan art in the horny hope that puss will purr yet. We’re not so sure.

Don’t miss the new, end-of-decade issue of Total Film Magazine out Thursday 17th December. Click here to subscribe.

Like This? Then try...

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter here .

Follow us on Twitter here .